Buenaventura Peneda was waiting to get paid after a day of pruning pomegranate trees. As he does every two weeks, he’ll send $500 of his earnings to his wife and family in El Salvador.
“If not for me, they would suffer,” he said in Spanish on Friday. “I maintain the family there.”
Peneda, a 52-year-old farmworker, moved illegally from El Salvador to Mendota in 1996. He is one of 200,000 immigrants across the country who have been protected from deportation since 2001, thanks to a program created by President George W. Bush after earthquakes devastated the country.
But last week, the Trump administration announced that the “temporary protected status” program will end in September 2019. The decision will affect more than 49,000 people in California, and could change Mendota – where Salvadorans are believed to be the majority – entirely.
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If the TPS program is really over, we would virtually cease to exist.
Joe Riofrio, former Mendota mayor
“Since 2001, I’ve felt strong. I’ve felt supported. I wasn’t worried like I am now,” Peneda said. “I don’t feel too good about it. Mendota is home.”
The Salvadoran influence on Mendota, home to more than 11,000 people, is undeniable. The majority of restaurants in town are pupuserias, serving the traditional stuffed tortillas the country is known for. The J&D Accesorios store sells hammocks made in El Salvador and jerseys representing the national soccer team. At the Westside Pool Hall, El Salvador’s flag hangs along with the Guatemala flag, the Honduras flag and the Mexico flag.
“If the TPS program is really over, we would virtually cease to exist,” said Joe Riofrio, owner of the Westside Pool Hall, who served two terms as mayor.
The pool hall was packed last week because the cold weather meant no field work for many of Riofrio’s customers. He says since Trump’s announcement on Monday, they’ve been asking him, “porque nosotros?” Why us?
200,000People in the U.S. who are recipients of the temporary protected status program
“When Trump got elected, everyone was asking, ‘Joe, what’s he going to do?’ And I said, ‘He’s not going to do anything.’ I said, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ Now it’s happening,” said Riofrio, 55, who has lived in Mendota – known as the cantaloupe capitol of the world – his entire life. “These people are the ones out hunched over in this wet weather cutting broccoli. They despise Trump and his policies. They don’t get how he doesn’t appreciate what they do.”
Maria Cruz, a Fresno State student set to graduate this year, is a TPS recipient and has lived in Mendota since she was 8 years old. Her most vivid childhood memory of living in El Salvador is having to cut short her playtime in the river to hide from soldiers during a civil war.
“It was not a friendly place,” she said.
Cruz has felt protected from the threat of deportation that other undocumented immigrants have had to face, until now.
“I am scared for my family and myself, but I have to be strong for my mom,” she said. “Crying and being sad unfortunately won’t fix this.”
Census data collected in 2010 puts the number of Mendota residents born in El Salvador at about 2,500, but, pointing to population growth, city leaders estimate the group is much larger.
It’s inhumane and undignified.
Flor Rodas, temporary protected status recipient
“They’re very close to, if not past, the majority of the population. What percentage of those people are TPS, I don’t know, but it’s common sense to assume many,” said Mendota City Manager Vince DiMaggio. “We’re obviously very concerned.”
DiMaggio was drafting a letter to Congressman David Valadao and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, urging them to call for recipients of the program to continue to be protected from deportation.
“Culturally, our diversity would be lost. Economically, it would be devastating,” he said. “If the federal government comes in and starts to deport people, along with those who will voluntarily leave ahead of time, you’re talking about thousands in Mendota who will go away.”
Maria Alfaro, who owns a store that sells work boots, hats and other merchandise, said Trump’s announcement is already hurting her business.
“They’re worried and they’re hoarding their money in case they have to go back,” she said in Spanish. “Ninety-nine percent of my clientele are Salvadoran or Central American.”
He’s just destroying everything – the Dream Act, Obamacare, TPS.
Maria Alfaro, Mendota business owner on President Donald Trump
Alfaro, who is from Mexico and has family members who are Salvadoran, said she couldn’t believe it when Trump won the election. For her, this is the last straw.
“He thinks Hispanics are delinquents, rapists, thieves. He lumps us all together,” she said. “He’s just destroying everything – the Dream Act, Obamacare, TPS. He sees the country as one of his corporations and he wants to run it like he’s a boss, rather than being presidential.”
Mayor Rolando Castro called the move to end the program “simply cruel” and said it will unnecessarily tear apart families and increase the city’s already high unemployment rate. Nearly 97 percent of people living in Mendota are Hispanic, and nearly half live below the national poverty level.
“In the past 20 years, our city has welcomed the Salvadoran immigrants as part of our community’s fabric. Today, they represent the majority of our residents and schoolchildren,” Castro said. “They have become farmworkers, business owners, teachers, priests and civic leaders.”
We’ve accepted them and welcomed them. They’re good, hardworking people. To try to send them back now, it’s a terrible thing.
Mendota City Councilman Robert Silva
City Councilman Robert Silva said the people who are being targeted in Mendota are not the criminal class of immigrants Trump said he would focus on, and they should not be uprooted.
“We’ve accepted them and welcomed them. They’re good, hardworking people. To try to send them back now, it’s a terrible thing,” Silva said. “First it was the Dreamers, but this thing is really a shock. We’re going backwards, in terms of immigration.”
Miguel Arias, spokesman for Fresno Unified School District, grew up in Mendota and has family there. He said repeal of the program will primarily affect farmworkers “that put food on all our tables.”
“The decision to revoke the status from thousands of legal immigrant workers who have followed our laws is an injustice that Congress should not allow to proceed,” he said. “The action does not solve any problem and simply politicizes the livelihoods and breaks up families of our most vulnerable community for the political advantage of the president.”
Flor Rodas was making pupusas on Friday at her restaurant, Morenita. She and some of her employees are recipients of TPS. Her children have been crying at the sight of utility trucks or someone in uniform who they think might be Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
“They fear that I’m going to be removed. But I tell them to have faith in God, that Congress will do something to not let this happen,” Rodas said in Spanish. “It’s inhumane and undignified. (Trump) doesn’t have a heart, and he’s opened the door to racism again. This country used to be anti-racist, and now it’s OK because he’s the president and he says it.”